CES 2007: Hands on with Vista: An OS X clone or the best Windows yet?

Las Vegas (NV) - Let's get this out of the way first: Microsoft's newest operating system bears more than a passing resemblance to Apple's OS X. And that's a good thing. At first glance, anyone familiar with OS X's Dashboard and desktop widgets will experience a feeling of déjà vu when they see the Windows Sidebar and Desktop Gadgets.

It's clear that while Windows XP was designed for the professional user and had business tasks in mind, Windows Vista was created for the consumer with entertainment and digital lifestyle features to boot. It's also clear that Apple has inspired many of the changes that we'll see in Vista. In the years between Windows XP and Vista, Microsoft watched as OS X led the charge with rich, family-friendly features that were both easy and fun to use. So Vista is really all about catching up with the consumer trend. Richard Russell, development manager for Vista's Client Performance Team, said Microsoft's primary aim was to go in a different direction than Windows XP.

"It's an enterprise OS, but we intended all along to make Vista more consumer oriented," Russell said. "This is the first Windows version for the new era of connectivity that we are living in." During Vista's development, he said, Microsoft weighed heavily on how much things have changed in five years since Windows XP; laptops are outselling desktops; digital cameras and photography have replaced conventional film; broadband has made dial-up Internet service extinct; and mobility has become an indispensable element for technology.

While waiting for a meeting with Microsoft officials at CES, the software giant gave members of the press a chance to play around with Vista running on a few Hewlett-Packard desktops. I found Vista to be much easier to navigate than XP, as everything from the pop-up windows for different applications to the subtle changes in the Start menu and Windows Search created an organized, fluid environment for the user. Frankly, a lot of Vista's selling points are features that should have been in Windows XP. But let's forget Microsoft's record of tardiness for a moment. Here are a few improvements and additions in Vista that stood out during my time with the OS and Microsoft's walkthrough:

Desktop Gadgets: It's pretty much a direct knockoff of OS X's Dashboard, but it works pretty well and is easy to set up. Users can click on features like Calculator, Clock, Weather, Stocks, and other gadgets and fit them right into a convenient sidebar on the desktop. Users can also create their own gadgets via the Microsoft Gadget Builder Depot site.

Windows Media Player 11: WMP got a big makeover for Vista, which is a good thing. Again, one of the big changes here is how the program organizes its files. Users can select what type of content they want to look up in the navigation bar (Music, Pictures, Video, etc.), and a handy sidebar emerges that will, for example, list a series of thumbnails for a variety of music albums or videos. WMP 11 also features a much more aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly graphical design.

Windows Photo Gallery/SlideShow: Windows XP sorely lacked this program, and to me, this is where Vista really shines. The design of Windows Photo Gallery (WPG) is sleek and lets users easily download, customize and organize their digital photos. And one of the best features of WPG is its hierarchical tagging system that makes it much more convenient to search for specific photos in extensive libraries. The tagging system is used throughout Vista, but it comes in really handy for WPG.

Windows Vista Resource Monitor: I had the most fun with this feature, which is one for the PC enthusiast. A new performance monitor within the Vista Resource Monitor menu gives users extremely detailed information on how the PC is running with detailed reports on the CPU, network, disk and memory. You can also look at how individual applications are performing and detect the sources of bottlenecks while improving load balancing.

Games: As Microsoft officials explained during the demonstrations, gaming is now a first class citizen on Windows, as a Games folder has been added to the Start menu. Like other features within Vista, the Games Explorer is organized quite well: each game gets a thumbnail which has detailed information on the type of game, its developer, game rating and other data. It's also quite easy to change your game settings from within the Games Explorer.

ReadyBoost: This new disk caching technology is designed to make Vista more responsive by using flash memory on a USB 2.0 drive, SD Card, compact Flash and other types of Flash memory to improve system performance. When a device is added to the PC, users can select the "Autoplay" function to speed up the system, for example.

SuperFetch: Another new technology to Windows, SuperFetch is designed to enhance load times for applications and files by keeping track of commonly used items and when they are loaded. In essence, the OS creates a schedule for those items and pre-caches them so they can be ready to go without any lag or sluggish performance.

Vista has some drawbacks - it feels like there are too many changes and reorganizations in the OS at times, and some tasks and programs take far too many steps and Explorer Windows to complete. So while Vista may have copied much of the OS X's DNA, there are still vast improvements in the new Windows version. Will Vista justify its higher price point ($259 just to upgrade from XP to Vista Ultimate) and get XP users to upgrade this year? That remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: with Vista, Apple will have a harder time painting PCs as rigid and un-hip in their "switch" advertisements.